Russia wants prisoner swap involving Brittney Griner negotiated without fanfare

MOSCOW — The Kremlin warned on Thursday that a possible prisoner swap with the United States involving American basketball star Brittney Griner must be negotiated quietly and without fanfare.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that Washington had offered Russia a deal that would bring back Griner and another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan. A person familiar with the matter said the US government was offering to trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Whelan and Griner.

Asked about the US offer, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said prisoner swaps were usually negotiated quietly behind the scenes.

“We know that such issues are discussed without any disclosure of information,” Peskov told reporters on a conference call. “Normally the public becomes aware of it when the agreements are already implemented.”

He stressed that “no deal has been finalized” and declined to provide further details.

In a separate statement, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Russian and US officials have been conducting negotiations on possible prisoner swaps and “there is no agreement yet.” concrete result”.

“We assume that the interests of both sides should be taken into account during negotiations,” Zakharova said.

Blinken’s comments marked the first time the US government has publicly revealed any concrete steps it has taken to secure Griner’s release. The two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA Phoenix Mercury player was arrested in mid-February at a Moscow airport when inspectors found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

In a sharp reversal from previous policy, Blinken said he expected to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss the proposed prisoner deal and other issues. It would be their first phone call since before Russia sent its troops to Ukraine.

Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Bout, a Russian arms dealer once dubbed the “dealer of death”. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 for conspiring to illegally sell millions of dollars worth of weapons.

Griner’s drug trafficking trial began this month in a court outside Moscow, and she testified on Wednesday that she did not know how the cartridges ended up in her bag, but that she had received a doctor’s recommendation to use cannabis to treat career-related pain.

The 31-year-old pleaded guilty but said she had no criminal intent to bring the cartridges to Russia and had hastily packaged her return to play in a Russian basketball league during the WNBA offseason. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs.

On Wednesday, Griner testified that an interpreter only translated a fraction of what was said while she was detained at Moscow airport and officials told her to sign documents, but “nobody explained anything to me.”

Griner also said that aside from the poor translation, she received no explanation of her rights or access to a lawyer during the first hours of her detention. She said she used a translation app on her phone to communicate with a customs officer.

His arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington before Russia sent troops to Ukraine on February 24. Griner’s five months in detention drew strong criticism from teammates and supporters in the United States, who officially declared her to be “wrongfully detained” – a designation strongly rejected by Russian officials.

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